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Absence Made Vickers’ Racing Heart Grow Stronger

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 6 2015

Brian Vickers is back behind the wheel this weekend. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett)

With the memories and the scars of open heart surgery barely in his rearview mirror, Brian Vickers returned to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Vickers, 31, was en route to a photo shoot for primary Cup sponsor Aaron’s in mid-December when he began experiencing pain. He considered going home to take a nap, but due to previous severe health issues, Vickers decided to head to the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte, N.C. Vickers called ahead to Carolinas Medical Center and proceeded to the emergency room as the pain continued to worsen. After several tests, doctors diagnosed a problem with the artificial patch that was placed over a hole in his heart in 2010. They immediately began preparing Vickers for surgery.

Vickers previously described the surgery as “a pretty traumatic event” filled with uncertainty. Vickers said Friday he truly is excited to be returning to the cockpit of the No. 55 Aaron’s 60th Anniversary Dream Machine Toyota Camry and working with his Michael Waltrip Racing team.

“I’ve learned that my love for racing has only increased – my love for what I do and how much I appreciate it – but I’ve also learned that it’s not who I am,” Vickers said. “It’s something I do and it’s part of who I am. It’s a very special part of who I am and it’s something that means the world to me, but it’s not who I am.”

Vickers qualified 28th for Sunday’s race.

Here is an edited transcript of Vickers’ pre-practice news conference heading into Sunday’s Kobalt 400:

Q: How does it feel to be back at a racetrack, ready to drive your car?

BRIAN VICKERS: It’s awesome. I think that’s the best way to describe it. I’m really excited to be back. I feel like we’ve had this press conference before. There are certainly times where I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be back and then you kind of deal with those emotions and then all the sudden you’re back and then you have to deal with those emotions. I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. I think to a large extent a month ago, I was as curious as probably some of you were as to how I would feel Friday morning. I can tell you I couldn’t be happier.

I was talking to someone on the way in and they asked what my emotions were going into this and I kind of look at it like a win-win. If we go out there and do well, that’s great. And even if we don’t, just being able to get back in a race car again and go 200 (mph) is incredible. No matter what the outcome, I’m happy to be here and happy to be back in a car again and get a chance to do something I love. But I’m an optimist _ I think we’re going to go out there and do well and I’m really proud of what this Aaron’s Dream Machine team has done so far this year with Michael (Waltrip, team co-owner) and Brett (Moffitt, replacement driver) and the gains we’ve made through the offseason and the gains that Toyota has made through the offseason and hopefully we can put it all together here this weekend in Vegas and come out of here with a good finish.

Q: Does being away from the track, and out of the cockpit for two events, truly make you appreciate racing more?

BRIAN VICKERS: Good question. The answer is yes, it does. It’s tough being out of the car. When you’re watching _ it’s a Saturday afternoon, you’re watching the XFINTIY race, it’s a race you’re not necessarily supposed to be in and as a race fan you just enjoy it. You just enjoy watching a sport you love. But when it’s a race and a car that you feel like you’re supposed to be in with your name on the door, it’s tough. It’s really tough and there’s a lot of emotions, a lot of challenging emotions kind of to deal with that.

I’ve been at the track the last two weekends with the team kind of supporting them and being on the box and being on the spotter’s stand and being on the tower and just kind of moving around and trying to learn and just pick up little things that could be beneficial in the car, but I can tell you it’s the last place I wanted to be. I was _ yeah, I was in Atlanta last weekend for the team and to be a part of it and try to learn something, but I was really there for them because I didn’t want to be there. I just don’t even want to watch it, you know?

But I think that having light at the end of the tunnel always kind of changes that. Knowing you’re going to be back in the car in Vegas definitely helps that, whereas if it was like this kind of outgoing question mark, it’s probably even more difficult.

Q: Were you actually worried that you would never be healthy enough to race again?

BRIAN VICKERS:  Going into the surgery, it was certainly a question I asked several times throughout the process, right? ‘Am I going to be able to race again?’ and early on it was like _ I think they were trying to set expectations and they were like, ‘It’s not looking good.’ They didn’t want to say no, but they were a far cry from yes. They needed to really kind of get in there and get into my heart basically _ which kind of sounds weird to say _ and kind of figure out what’s going on before they could really give me an answer, but they were kind of setting the bar pretty low.

I kind of dealt with that and then as they learned more, as they came out they were like, ‘OK, we definitely know what happened and why and we fixed it and we’re not worried about it moving forward, so we think you’re good to go. But let’s do a checkup in a month and we’ll see.’  But of course I was asking them, ‘Can I go racing?’ It’s something I love. It’s something over the last 10 years and my life and particularly the last five years dealing with everything, I’ve learned that my love for racing has only increased _ my love for what I do and how much I appreciate it _ but I’ve also learned that it’s not who I am. It’s something I do and it’s part of who I am. It’s a very special part of who I am and it’s something that means the world to me, but it’s not who I am.

If I can’t race, that’s OK _ life is going to go on. I think from that perspective, yes, I asked the doctors, ‘Can I go race and I want to go race,’ but if they say no, I’m not going to fight them. If they said, ‘Listen, we don’t think it’s safe,’ I’m not going to fight them on it. Kind of through that process _ I mean, listen, being back here at Vegas, it was their choice, not me. I didn’t push them into this. Matter of fact, I sit there and push them the other way. I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’ I can wait until Phoenix. I can wait until…I’m totally fine waiting as long as you want and they were like, ‘No, no. You’re totally good. You’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.’

I called them again this week and was like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to come in for a checkup?’ I’m like, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow. Are you sure?’ And he’s like, ‘Listen, the least concerned person in this whole conversation is me. If you want to come in tomorrow, by all means you’re welcome to come in and we can sit down and chat, but I’m just telling you, you’re fine.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ In the sense of did I want to go racing and did I request that and tell them I wanted to, of course. It’s what I love, but I didn’t push them into a decision; it was really their decision and I was going to stick to that.

Q: Has this ordeal given you an even fresher perspective on the fact you’re racing again?

BRIAN VICKERS: I think a perspective is anytime you have to fight for something and anytime it’s taken away from you _ I mean, it’s kind of like a kid with a toy, right? You take the toy away, they just want the toy more. How many times have you pulled a toy away from a kid and _ we’re just big kids, especially boys, we never grow up and I see a lot of females nodding _ so you take their toy away and they just want it even more. And I’ve had it taken away several times, so, yes, I want it more and I think I also have a deeper appreciation for it.

I think when you get in a routine, you do something for 10 years or 15 years, five years, whatever it is, you just kind of wake up in the morning and you expect it and then one day when you realize and maybe several days you realize that you can’t just wake up and expect it, you’ve got to fight for it and you appreciate it more and you love it more. But at the same time, I also have…I think I’ve tried to find balance in my life where, like I said earlier, it’s not who I am. If it doesn’t happen, my life’s not over. There’s still a lot of things to be done and challenges and opportunities and you just kind of keep going.

Q: Did you feel any different putting on your driver’s suit today, in anticipation of climbing into that car?

BRIAN VICKERS: Absolutely. Another good question. I didn’t even think about it until you just said that, but yeah. I definitely feel _ the first two times I’ve put this suit on it’s been for photo shoots or commercials or media and today it’s to actually use it and it felt a little better zipping it up today than it did the first two times because it’s here. It’s real and I can’t wait to get in that car here in a few minutes.

Q: Did Brett Moffitt exceed expectations in the No. 55 Camry at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he finished a career-best eighth?

BRIAN VICKERS: I can’t speak to everyone’s expectations. I would say for me, I think that Brett, he’s a good young man, he’s a good driver. I’ve been working with him now for two or three years kind of in a test team-type capacity. I’ve seen his potential. He needs experience. I think that it took him a while to figure out in the race what he wanted and needed and same for the team to kind of get dialed-in. It’s the first mile-and-a-half of the season, so it took him a while to get to where they needed to be, but they got there and that capacity, that capability, I think we all felt was there.

I don’t know that he necessarily exceeded or didn’t succeed in his expectations. My expectation was that he would do well and that’s why MWR wanted to give him that chance and put him in the car. I’d love to see him get more experience and seat time. I think he’s been a valuable asset to MWR. I think he could be unquestionably a contender in any series, but if he could get a ride in the XFINITY Series, Truck Series and get some experience and then get in the Cup _ I mean listen, he’s done well in the Cup Series. But thinking back to my own personal experiences, you just need seat time, right? That’s what he needs and I’d love to see him get that shot and maybe it’s in a Cup car.

He’s got an opportunity the next few weeks in a Cup car (the No. 34 Shawn’s Southern Belle Seafood Ford Fusion fielded by Front Row Motorsports) and I think he’ll do well. Does that answer your question? I think a lot of him, but he just needs experience. He just needs time. I want to see him get that chance.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 6 2015
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